I’ve been a huge admirer of the words and music of Martin Stephenson since his early days with The Daintees back in the 1980s. A few years ago, when we were both living in the Highlands, I was fortunate enough to meet the man himself a couple of times. Here’s an interview I did with him in 2003 near his home in Tain…
Born in County Durham, Martin Stephenson is a gifted singer, songwriter and performer. In the ’80s, he found considerable fame and critical acclaim with his band, The Daintees. However, when the band split in 1992, Stephenson’s disenchantment with major label politics led him to sever ties with the mainstream industry completely.
Stephenson retreated to the Highlands in the late ’90s but remains as industrious and prolific a talent as ever. The following words are Martin’s…
“The Daintees were together from ’82 to ’92. It was a good journey. We were like brothers, and we came through the ’80s, which to me was like a difficult time, a selfish time – a time during which musicians were used to experiment with technology, whereas I wanted to keep it really simple. All I can visualise of the ’80s is this Ford transit van and these four brothers surviving through it, and we came out as friends.
“In terms of the Daintees albums [which have just been re-released through Voiceprint distribution], listening to them again you hear some of the production things, and its like looking at your old school photographs. But I can sing songs that I wrote when I was nineteen and not be embarrassed. We were always trying to follow a good path. I couldn’t sit in the house and listen to my own albums because I have to sing them all the time. But I’m alright with them.
“I would never write off touring with The Daintees again, but the two brothers in the band, Anthony and Gary Dunn, they’ve got children so its hard for them. We got together a couple of years ago to tour and it was great – it was a laugh, you know. It was always good fun, but at this moment in time, I think that they’re developing in areas that would make it a distraction for them.
“My first vague memory of visiting the Highlands is when I came up with the Daintees in ’87 or ’88 and played the Ice Centre or Eden Court. But my first vivid memory is when I went under apprenticeship with Gypsy Dave Smith [Australian Blues-man and master of the bottleneck guitar – a Celt born from fisher folk who left the Moray coast in the forties for a new life fishing the great barrier reef]. We ended up in the Highlands and I think we played The Phoenix – a little pub in Inverness.
“I found out then that I’d rather go and play a small folk club with Gypsy Dave than play the Dominion for two nights, and I remember doing all those big gigs during the ’80s but feeling hollow inside.
“Rob Ellen [promoter with Highland-based Medicine Music] looked after us back then – he used to put music on in the Phoenix, and he was living in Nairn at the time, so I stayed with him at first. After that, Rob was really my main connection with the Highlands. He’s a leftfield character, and really good-hearted. Ive seen him struggle to get money for food and all that. He’d invest his money into doing some posters and putting a band on instead! That’s what attracted me to Rob, he was nothing like the rest of the music industry, he was like a wild man who lived up in the hills, and I love that about him.
“I was going through a lot of stuff then because, probably from around 1984, I’d clocked this cocoon around myself. I saw it as a very oppressive thing, even though it seemed that a lot of people wanted to be in that position, I actually realised it was dangerous for my spiritual growth so, consciously, I started dismantling this quite early on, and I’d try and avoid certain things that put me in what I thought was a negative situation. Maybe it was a more materialistic situation.
“Gypsy Dave was also an important element in helping me in that – I went to smaller venues under apprenticeship with him. I was a scary time, but I was very fortunate. And I then kept gravitating up to the Highlands more and more until I felt cleaner. The Highlands seemed to be the wrong way to go for a careerist and I think thats why it appealed to me!
“A lot of it was to do with drinking as well. There was a drinking problem, so I faced it up here and beat that about eight years ago.
“Although I would work with Rob and do little gigs around the Highlands and Islands – you know, go to Arran or wherever – I actually saw the Highlands as a haven where I didn’t really want to develop too much profile-wise. I enjoy not having too much profile, so I’d quite happily go and busk or go and play in a pub and not think it was below me. So I’ve enjoyed just being here and not worrying too much. The most important thing to me is interaction with other musicians, friends and neighbours. I’ve always visualised it like that, really.
“Last year, we released the ‘Collective Force’ album, which we call ‘Collective Farce’ now! It started off as an album that I was recording up here, and then I put it on CD and went down to Worthing and worked with some musicians down there. So that was an interaction between Worthing and the Highlands, but it got complicated. It was a good album though, and we just put it out and distribute it at the level that we have access to. Janice Long also picked up on it and I recorded a session for her show.
“The e-group and website have worked really well in providing this interaction. You see, in the major part of the music industry, the manager works the artist and he keeps a veil in front of the audience. The veil is there for control. So, the way I work now, the manager has gone and Ive formed a direct connection with the audience, and I think thats a better level because the demi-god gets destroyed.
“In a way, you have to go through ego suicide, but if you throw that away then there’s a growth, and I think thats what’s happening with e-groups. Artists are starting to connect more with their audiences so you become one. It’s like a band really – there are no chiefs. I may be a catalyst for it, but there are many people within the group who are really talented and want to develop, and thats the way I’ve worked with it. For instance, there’s a guy that does my artwork, there’s another lad that does my website. So we just work like a team.
“I remember when people used to come to my gigs in the ’80s, theres always a tour manager that gets in the way of that relationship with the audience, but that’s not there anymore. I think that whoever plays the music and the listener can get to connect in a way that wasn’t allowed before. And its on a smaller, microcosmic level. Theres a lot of wealth in that as well.
“Many of the projects that I’m working on now have grown through just being open and allowing other people to have a go at doing things. For instance, I’m going to do a tour in Ireland in a few days time, and Im going to tour Australia in October, and this is all through just being on a clear path where you’re not cocooned.
“The new CD, ‘Haint of the Budded Rose’, which we actually recorded three years ago out in North Carolina, came out of this process of creativity and connection with people that want to do something. The CD includes many of the musicians that I met out there through an American called Dolph Ramseur.
“Dolph had phoned me up in about 1989 when I was living in Tynemouth and he left a message on the answering machine saying [Martin puts on a North Carolinian accent] “My name is Dolph. Im a tennis player. I want to come over to England and get my foot in the door in music – Ill even carry your guitar cases for you…” – and that freaked me out! At first I thought it was a mate winding me up, so I just erased the message. And then about four years ago he got in touch again, and I found out that we had a common interest in old-time string music and bluegrass, and we actually just started interacting through email, and we spent six months planning this musical journey.
“He wanted to show me North Carolina and to make a connection with finger-picking and all that stuff, so I just trusted him and went with it. So, really, it was the same thing … you know, he was an Echo and the Bunnymen fan whod stumbled across my album and it just came from that. Again nothing to do with the business – just enthusiasm for music. We started off playing porches and ice cream parties and just travelling around with a minidisc recorder. And its just grown from that, and now hes started his own label and hes got other artists, so he’s actually finding a life in music now. He’s become my main man in the States now. Hes a good soul, and a friend.
“I have a very small distribution situation right now, which comes from being outside of the major network. Theres a guy called Rob Ayling who I think is really interesting. He has a company called Voiceprint. He was an electrician in London who just decided to change his life. He started putting prog-rock albums out in the late ’70s and early ’80s because no one else was putting them out, and he just developed his own distribution company from there.
“He was the only person that would take my album ‘The Church and the Minidisc’ on board [an album recorded over three-days at two churches in the Highlands using only a minidisc recorder], which was an important album for me, and he had no problem with that. So I’m able to deliver an album to him myself and he doesnt need to get involved in any recording costs – thats my own problem. So my choice is how much debt I want to go into when I record an album, which I try to keep to a minimum.”